L ast Spring I alerted you to a major new initiative to survey graduate students in the sciences about their experiences in graduate school. Today we are making those results public.

6,533 present or former Ph.D. students completed the survey. Overall, the survey population is representative of the population of graduate students in the sciences. The survey included a slightly higher proportion of women and a significantly smaller proportion of non-citizens. Publicity by the ACS increased the participation of young chemists greatly while lack of publicity by engineering societies resulted in an under-representation from engineering disciplines.

Demographics of Survey Respondents

Male, 55%

Female, 44.5%

U.S. citizen, 85%

Noncitizen, 15%

Recent graduates, 27%

Ph.D. students, 73%

Respondent's Field of Study

Agricultural Sciences

1.4%

Chemistry

11.5%

Computer Science

3.5%

Engineering

11.8%

Geosciences

3.2%

Health Sciences

11.0%

Life Sciences

36.5%

Mathematics

4.8%

Physics

9.1 %

Psychology

7.0%

The Good News: Most Students Are Happy With Grad School

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the survey was the proportion of graduate students who are satisfied with their graduate school experience. The proportion answering affirmatively to broad questions about their satisfaction with grad school varied between 75% to 85%. While many graduate students express frustration with some elements of their grad school experience, the results suggest that their overall satisfaction remains high. The degree of satisfaction is higher for current students than for recent graduates, suggesting that departments are either improving with time or that current students are overly generous!

Agree or somewhat agree

"Overall quality of faculty teaching is excellent"

74%

"My advisor teaches me good research practice"

83%

"I am satisfied with the overall education I am receiving"

85%

"I would strongly recommend my program to prospective students"

76%

Most graduate students feel that they were not exploited. Only 20% responded affirmatively to a series of questions addressing this question.

Disagree or somewhat disagree

"My advisor/mentor sees me as a cheap source of labor to advance his/her research"

79%

"My advisor/mentor expects me to work so many hours that it is difficult for me to have a life outside of school"

78%

"Graduate students in my program are here primarily to help faculty fulfill their research and teaching obligations"

72%

"Graduate students in my program are treated with respect"

20%

If you believe that it is OK that one in five grad students feel they are exploited, then this result should come as good news. However one would hope that graduate departments might do a better job in this regard than a low B!

Not So Good News

The data clearly show that most departments have been slow to adopt much breadth or flexibility in graduate curricula. The issue of breadth and flexibility has been recommended by policy-makers and educators as a means of making the Ph.D. more adaptable and useful in a broader range of professions outside of academia. Increasing breadth was a key recommendation of the COSEPUP Committee's landmark report "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers".

Disagree or somewhat disagree

"My department encourages students to broaden their education through such activities as coursework outside the department, industrial internships and external workshops"

51%

"My department actively encourages students to explore a broad range of career options"

48%

Many departments also fail to provide basic statistics on employment or outcomes of their graduates.

Disagree or somewhat disagree

"My department made available to me during the application process a list of places where recent graduates were employed"

63%

"My department made available to me during the application and admission process the percentage of students who complete the program"

71%

"During the application and admissions process, my department provided enough information about the job market in my field for me to make an informed decision about choosing to pursue a Ph.D."

50%

More Surprises: Looking at Demographic Groups

Guess which group is most satisfied with graduate education in the sciences? Noncitizens. Guess which group is least satisfied. U.S. women citizens. Surprised? I was at first. While the numerical differences between these groups appears to be small, they are statistically significant and, I believe, reflect important underlying issues in graduate education.

According to the results of the survey, women believe they receive less information than men. This includes information during the application and admission process and professional information.

Agree or strongly agree

"My department made available to me during the application and admissions process a list of places where recent graduates were employed"

Men

Women

32%

28%

"My program/department provides effective preparation and training for teaching assistants before they enter the classroom"

53%

47%

"My department/program encourages students to broaden their education through such activities as coursework outside the department, industrial internships, and external workshops."

53%

45%

Women in the survey also feel slightly less satisfied with the breadth of the curriculum, career guidance, and faculty mentoring.

Foreign nationals feel just the opposite. In general, they feel better about their training and feel they receive closer supervision and more guidance. A greater proportion of foreign students feel that there is too much breadth in degree programs.

Agree or strongly agree

"My doctoral program does a good job of preparing students for careers outside of academia"

Citizens

Noncitizens

48%

55%

"My department/program actively encourages students to explore a broad range of career options"

51%

59%

"My program provides effective preparation and training for teaching assistants before they enter the classroom"

48%

61%

"My program carefully supervises teaching assistants to help improve their teaching skills"

33%

52%

"Most faculty in my program emphasize the importance of teaching"

39%

53%

"My doctoral program does a good job of preparing students for careers in academia"

62%

70%

"Excessive degree requirements in my program extend the time to degree unnecessarily"

21%

30%

What are we to make of these differences? Taking the data at face Value, it appears as though noncitizen graduate students seem to either receive more attention especially with regard to teaching (perhaps due to concern over language barriers?). Perhaps foreign graduate students are more directed and certain about their career goals? Maybe U.S. citizen graduate students are more likely to whine?

Comparing Disciplines: Happiness in Computer Sciences and Mathematics, Not in Life Sciences, Chemistry, and Geosciences!

The differences between disciplines is striking. Computer science and mathematics score above average in nearly all categories, especially overall satisfaction and career development and placement. Students in life sciences, chemistry and geosciences are less happy, on average, especially in the areas of curricular breadth and flexibility and career guidance.

Agree or strongly agree

"My department/program encourages students to broaden their education through such activities as coursework outside the department, industrial internships, and external workshops."

Life Sciences

Computer Science

28%

78%

"My program provides effective preparation and training for teaching assistants before they enter the classroom"

Life Sciences

Mathematics

45%

71%

"There is a faculty member other than my advisor who keeps track of how my research is coming along"

Chemistry

Life Sciences

35%

71%

It is perhaps not surprising that computer science should score high. The field is extremely hot and jobs are plentiful. Departments have a lot of money and graduates face an almost dizzying array of career options. But the employment picture in mathematics is not nearly so rosy. What gives? Geoff Davis, the creator of the survey and a mathematician by training, believes that mathematics departments have been, on average, very proactive in broadening their curricula and providing more options for their graduates, particularly because they were hit with such high rates of unemployment in recent years.

What About Department Rankings?

Originally, the Grad School Survey was designed to allow prospective graduate students, faculty members, and administrators to compare data on a department-by-department basis. A preliminary ranking, and individual reports, were released to department chairs who were given an opportunity to respond to the results. A number of department chairs expressed concern about the statistical validity of the ranking process. In some cases, survey reports were based on as few as 5 responses, which may be too small a sample for large departments.

Rather than release individual reports and rankings to the general public, the creators of the survey have released department and institutional reports to individual department chairs and deans. These data are also available to graduate student organizations. Interested individuals should contact their department chair, dean, or graduate student organization for more information.

The next generation of the Grad School Survey (beginning in January 2000) will include improved mechanisms for increasing survey participation and determining the statistical validity of rankings. These added features and improvements will rectify the concerns expressed above and will enable us to release complete rankings and individual department reports to the general public.

"Department chairs have some valid criticisms," explained Davis, "and rather than create conflict and animosity, we chose to work with them to create a better survey instrument. We are all after the same thing: improving graduate science education in the United States."

Survey results and additional comparisons can be found at http://www.phds.org/survey/results.

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.